A tortured discussion about zoning is taking place in Montgomery County these days. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is asking the County Council to change the rules for stores larger than 120,000 square feet that devote 10 percent of more of their floor space to groceries. The proposed change is aimed squarely at making it more difficult for "big-box" outlets such as Wal-Mart Superstores, Wegman's and SuperTarget to do business. At the same time, the zoning changes exempt other big-box stores such as Costco and non-grocery outlets such as Home Depot.

Confused?

Duncan argues that the big-box stores he has targeted "violate principles of smart growth, generate excessive pedestrian and vehicular traffic, contribute to suburban sprawl and are otherwise incompatible with neighboring properties." Wal-Mart and Wegman's cause more traffic than Costco and Home Depot do?

Still confused?

Duncan further claims that grocery-selling stores such as Wal-Mart and Wegman's that do not require membership cards generate more adverse conditions than stores that do require membership.

Feel like a guest at the Mad Hatter's tea party?

Maybe this will help.

At a recent hearing on the zoning proposal, Wal-Mart representatives protested that the legislation would stifle competition and consumer choice. At the same meeting, unions and the unionized grocery chains of Giant and Safeway spoke in favor of the proposal.

Throughout his political career, Duncan has relied on the kindness and generosity of these latter groups. Perhaps the phrase "next gubernatorial primary and general election" dissipates the fog created by the county executive's hazy logic.

Duncan's attempt to draw a meaningful contrast between a "good" big-box store and a "bad" one is a distinction without a difference. In the zoning and culture wars surrounding these retail behemoths, Wal-Mart comes off as "bad" -- the equivalent of the Death Star. This biggest of the big-box companies has been accused of exploiting illegal immigrants, locking employees in stores at night, ruining small businesses and discriminating against female employees. Former and current female Wal-Mart employees brought a class action sex discrimination case against the company seeking more than $1 billion.

Wegman's, on the other hand, cultivates an image of being "good" -- a benevolent and gentle giant. Already, many county residents have written to the company and to the council pleading to have a Wegman's in Montgomery. Instead of having to drive across the river to the Wegman's in Sterling, they want their own 130,000-square-foot concrete box where they can shop for gourmet food, eat sushi and have their kids minded for free.

Only time and now, apparently, the courts will tell how this big box-retailing fad will turn out. Meanwhile, dozens of these 150,000-square-foot structures, surrounded by 50 acres of asphalt, could be dropped in our midst. And along with them will come all of the traffic, noise and pollution problems that such enterprises generate.

The best hardware store in Montgomery County sits at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road. It operates out of a small, one-story wooden structure. It is a tiny fraction of the size of a big-box store. But customers swear that if they needed a combine harvester, the owner would get one for them in minutes.

Recently, a woman walked into the hardware store hoping to have a key made. She had been to two big boxes near Georgia Avenue, where she had been told that the blank she needed was no longer made. The clerks had offered to sell her a new lock and keys instead.

At the old hardware store, the gentleman working the floor looked at the key and excused himself. He returned shortly with a blank. It was not identical, he said, but it would work. He cut the key, gave the customer advice on how to make it work smoothly the first time and said that if the key did not work to bring it back and he would make another one. Other customers watching the transaction gave knowing nods and approving smiles. "You just have to know your business," was all the man said.

But don't take too much comfort in this story. In addition to having to go up against cutthroat competition from the big-box stores, this first-rate small business also happens to be in the path of the proposed Inter-County Connector. If that road ever gets built, refreshing community tableaus, such as the one surrounding the key, will no longer take place, and the big boxes will have one less able competitor.

In the zoning case of the big boxes, the county executive's chatter about smart growth rings hollow. Rather than a serious policy review of an important county issue, Duncan's big-box logic is disingenuous and self-serving -- and nothing is confusing about that.

michele.dyson@cisglobal.com